1:52 pm - January 23rd 2009
Tell you what, let’s get all the shilling out of the way in the first paragraph. There’s the Convention on Modern Liberty – great idea, horrible-looking website. A regular Carnival on Modern Liberty, with the first revelries seemingly imminent, if the first deadline’s anything to go by. The Guardian has launched its new Liberty Central section (cheeky!) with a mildly amusing bit of grandstanding by Henry Porter – I’m keenly awaiting the ‘errr, about your CiF username…’ email, and…
…and if I’m absolutely honest, I’m beginning to wish that some people, Henry included, would just back off from the whole ‘database state’ thing for a little while simply because they really have only, at best, a partial understanding of the issues.
There is a significant difference between promoting liberty and trying to scare the bejeebus out of Joe Public by playing on their fears and anxieties about modern technology and, for quite a while now, the whole ‘database state’ meme has been far to focussed on the latter. Even No2ID, which has done a bang-up job of keeping the debate around IC cards going, is rather too focussed on pitching bien pensant anti-statist dystopian fantasies to the extent that, while everyone’s overdosing on regurgitated Orwell, the single most imminent and far reaching threat to personal privacy engendered by the creation of the National Identity Register, in its present form, goes almost completely unnoticed.
Before you all get too caught up in the ‘database state’, maybe you should step back and think a bit more carefully about the implications of the ‘database economy’ because that’s going to here a hell of lot sooner than you realise and its reach is much greater than you might imagine.
Personal Information, Data Protection and the Private Sector
Do you have a supermarket ‘loyalty card’?
I suspect many of you do, and I also fully expect that most of you have absolutely no idea what you agreed to when you signed on the dotted line, not when it comes to your personal information and how that can be used.
I know what you agreed to. I used to be a registered data controller, which meant it was my job to understand exactly how the Data Protection Act works. I know the system…
…and that’s why I don’t have a loyalty card and never have done.
We need to pick on someone here to demonstrate the point and as they’re the biggest player in the game, we might as well go for Tesco.
If you’ve got a Tesco Clubcard then, whether you realise it or not, and regardless of what it or may not have not have said in the fine print on the form you filled in to get the card, you’ve agreed that Tesco can use your personal information in any way that’s covered by their registration under the Data Protection Act.
To help you navigate the information in front of you, if you’ve never looked at anything like this before, we’ll pick on just one part of the registration. So if you scroll down the page somewhere towards half way, you come across a big bold heading that says “Purpose 4″ and then, underneath, it says “Trading/Sharing in Personal Information”.
Yes, Tesco’s has registered the ability to sell or share your personal information to other companies and businesses.
A little further down, you’ll see another heading, “Data Subjects are:” – that’s you that is, and, at the very least, you’re covered under ‘Customers and clients’, unless you’re a Tesco employee or a supplier, both of which have their own entries. In the same section you’ll also see entries for “Complainants, correspondents and enquirers”, so even if all you’ve ever done is write to Tesco to oppose plans for new store in your area, any personal information you disclose in writing to Tesco can be extracted from your letter, stored in a database and sold on. And it not just you, either, as the next line also covers Tesco for selling information about “Relatives, guardians and associates of the data subject”, not to mention “Students and pupils” so you might be advised to keep an eye on anything your kids school might be doing in ‘partnership’ with Tesco.
The next heading, ‘Data classes”, tell you what kinds of information Tesco is permitted to collect, process and sell on, and the full list goes as follows; personal details, family, lifestyle and social circumstances, education and training details, employment details, financial details and goods or services provided.
If anything on that list has given you pause for thought, then I guess it will be either ‘family, lifestyle and social circumstances’ or ‘financial details’ but, in the right hands, information about ‘goods or services provided’ can also reveal a lot about you and your family.
The final two sections cover who the provide this information to; they’re called “Sources and Disclosures under the 1984 Act or Recipients under the 1998 Act, and where they transfer your information to (“Transfers”) which limits their operations to the European Economic Area, which is the EU and a few non-EU European countries.
Take a look at the list of ‘recipients’ for a moment – yes, you’ll see that Central Government is on the list, as are Ombudsmen and other regulators, but don’t get too caught up that for the moment. Instead, look at the kind of commercial organisations listed; suppliers and other providers of good and services, financial organisations and advisers, credit reference agencies, debt collection and tracing agencies, survey and research organisations, and…
…traders in personal data.
That’s right, they can sell your information on to other business who also sell your personal information. They don’t have to tell you who they’re selling your information to, when they sold it or what it was sold for and this is all legal and above board because, when you signed up for a Tesco Clubcard to get a few crappy little money-off voucher, you agreed to all this.
That’s one business – a supermarket. Now use your imagination, think about much personal information you give to commercial businesses as a matter of routine, all of which ends up in a database somewhere along the line, and scale that up for all the different situations in which you hand over that information without ever thinking about or questioning what will happen to it after you’ve left the store, or the bank, or the website or…
And you thought the government holds a lot of information about you and your family.
One Number To Rule Them All, One Number To Find Them…
For companies who get into the business of buying and selling information from a variety of different sources, there is a big downside, a couple of obstacles that gets in the way of their building a clear and accurate information picture of you.
One of these is simply that not all the data they received is necessarily reliable. Errors can creep in and data is entered, stored and moved from location to location and, of course, people circumstances change; they move house, change jobs, have children, start or end a relationship and a thousand other things beside, all of which can mean the information that companies hold may be inaccurate or out of date in some respect.
The other big logistical problem lies in reliably tying together all the information from various sources; not only do you have the problem of possible errors in the information, itself, may be ambiguous.
What if you’ve got two people with the same name living in the household? How do you separate the information for Joe Bloggs from the information for Joe Bloggs Jr, especially if some of the information you buy is incomplete and doesn’t record middle names or ages, things which you might use to differentiate between the two?
It’s can be very difficult to combine together information from a range of different sources unless all of them have one piece of information in common, a piece of information that is unique to a particular individual…
…like the National Identity Registration Number (NIRN) which, if the ID cards scheme goes ahead, will be issued by the government to everyone who gets an ID card.
And here’s the big problem. The NIRN is not only the key to the government’s plans for data sharing between its various departments and agencies, its also precisely what commercial organisations and businesses need to reliably connect together and share all the personal data that they hold about you, me and everyone else living in the UK. In fact, if you’re in the business of trading in personal information then the NIRN is the holy grail of your business model…
…and if you take the time to read through the Identity Card Act, you’ll find that Section 17(2) states that:
(2) The only information about an individual that may be provided to a person under this section is—
(a) information about the individual falling within paragraph 1, 3 or 4 of Schedule 1 (name, date and place of birth, gender and addresses, residential status, identifying numbers and validity of identifying documents);
The Identity Cards Act not only creates the ‘one number to rule the all’ it also allow the government to give it away to anyone who can find a reasonable excuse for asking you to provide identification for whatever it is you may be doing at a given time; like applying for a job, opening a bank account, taking out a mortgage, loan or hire purchase agreement, even for withdrawing largish sums of cash from your bank account, buying relatively expensive items, or lots of small items that add up to a relatively expensive total bill; like your main weekly or monthly trip to the supermarket.
In fact, the figure that’s been floating around in various place for a while is £200. That’s the size of transaction that the banks and others have mentioned at which, once ID cards become fairly common place, they’ll start asking people to provide and verify their ID in order to complete the transaction, grabbing and adding to their own records, if at all possible, your National Identity Registration Number in the process.
Spreading the Disease
Wow, you might think, that’s a bit of flaw in the system – but it isn’t. It’s actually a feature of the system.
Remember, the government wants you to have an ID cards but, at least to begin with, it doesn’t want to be seen to be too coercive about getting you have one by making it a compulsory scheme, at least not until it issued enough the things that it reasonably turn around and argue ‘well, most people have got them already, so we might as well just mop up the few refusniks who’re left’.
It’s tackled this in three ways.
It’s used compulsion where it thought it could get away with it without causing a major public outcry, by targeting foreign nationals and people in roles that have a security element too them, like airport security workers. That’s something we’ll see being fairly quickly extended to a wide range of other workers in the public sector such that anyone who has to carry official ID as part of their job will be propelled on to the register and handed an ID card.
It’s used the backdoor route of linking the issuing of ID cards to other official documents, like passports and driving licences although, thanks to the House of Lords, the ID card element remains an ‘optional extra’ for the time being. Unless the Act is repealed, it won’t remain that way for too long nor will it just be passports and driving licences that will be used to push people on to the register. In fact, if you look at the Act, which contains provisions giving the government the power to make access to public services conditional on proof of identity then it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that its only a matter of time and political expediency before benefit claimants get sucked into the system via the backdoor and Jobcentre staff are cheerily asking claimants to turn over their card and assume the position on the fingerprint scanner in order to sign on and get their bennies.
And, when the time comes, it will make full use of the ‘soft power’ of the banks, building societies, mortgage and finance companies and the retail sector to propel people into the system.
Disclosing your NIRN to the private sector is the sweetener that the government have put up to get them on board and with the programme, in part to create a further layer of ‘soft’ compulsion, one that has the added attraction of being rather more difficult to pin directly on the government.
There are also, however, commercial considerations at play – remember, the ID cards system is supposed to be more or less self-financing and there are limits both to how much the government can get away will screwing out of Joe Public for issuing them and also how much they can quietly bury in other departmental budgets to keep the visible costs down. More of less from the outset, generating income from the provision of identity verification services to the private sector has been a key component of the ‘business model’ of the ID cards scheme and to get the revenue you’ve got to businesses on board and buying into your services.
This is business. The government are asking commercial businesses to buy into the scheme, buy the equipment necessary to carry out the checks and cough up a processing fee every time they use their verification services, and while some types of business have got some fairly sizeable incentives to get on board anyway, particularly the banks and financial services sector, its going to help things along considerably if you can find a way to sweeten the deal without it costing you any money…
…and the prize carrot in your garden is the same unique number you’re banking on to make your own data sharing plans work.
The Database State vs The Database Economy
The ‘database state’ sounds like a pretty scary proposition, and there’s no shortage of problems in the manner in which the government are putting it all together, but think on this…
The government, and its various departments and agencies, already holds an enormous amount of personal information about each of its citizens, often for very good reasons and, in some cases, because its information you might want, and even expect them to hold. We’re not going to get very far at all, in this day and age, if the government didn’t use databases to store a variety of tax and NI records, welfare benefits records, passport and driving licence information, car registrations, council tax records, criminal records, the electoral roll, medical records and whole bunch of other things besides.
There are often very good reasons for holding this of information and even very good reasons for sharing some of the information between different departments and agencies.
With a few exceptions, most of the issues we should be most concerned about when considering government databases are those relating to accuracy, access and security and accountability. We want the government to hold the right information, and only the information it needs for carrying out its legitimate activities. We want to know that information is secure and only available to people who have a genuine need/use for it and only when they have the legal authority access/use it. And, we want to know that the people responsible for all this are accountable for their actions and can be held to account, if and when they make mistakes, screw up or break the rules.
To help with this last important part, we can use the Data Protection Act to find out what information the government has about us, we can use the Freedom of Information Act to find out (with some exclusions) what the government is doing with that information, who’s got it and, if it being shared and/or moved around, who else has access to it or copies of it, and, ultimately, we can work our way up a chain of oversight, which includes the Information Commissioner, all the way up to Parliament, which can investigated and scrutinise the system and hold people to account on our behalf.
Out there in the ‘database economy’, we may have some idea of who’s got out information; we know who we bank with and where we shop and who our employer is, and we can for those businesses that we know have our personal information we can use the Data Protection Act to find out and look at the information they hold…
…well, some of it, because, using subject access requests under DPA, some people have discovered that certain businesses have gone to a lot of time and trouble to try to conceal just exactly how much information they hold about ordinary people by trying to design their databases in a way that bypasses the regulations in the Data Protection Act, circumventing the subject access provisions in the Act.
The Freedom of Information Act doesn’t apply to the private sector, so you’ve no way of finding out exactly what a private company has been doing with your personal information, who has access to it, how they use it and whether and who they might have sold it on to and where any copies of it might be. And if you don’t know where your information and who’s got it – and it may not even be in this country – then you can’t use the Data Protection Act to find out what kind of information these other companies might have on you, at least not without going to all the trouble of making speculative subject access requests just to find out whether a company you’ve never dealt with directly has any information on you.
As for scrutiny and oversight, you could turn to the Information Commissioner, provided you can find out who’s got your information in the first place, but the Commissioner’s powers are limited, the sanctions for breaking the Data Protection Act are pretty small – a £5,000 fine is hardly going to scare the life out the likes of Tesco – and breaking the law is rather more difficult than you might have thought. As long as you cover yourself when you register with the Information Commissioner, keep the paperwork deliberately vague and don’t give your customers any clear commitments as to what you will and won’t do with their personal information that they could try and hold you to, its actually quite difficult to fall foul of the law.
And now for the big question…
So, if you’ve taken all that in, let me ask you this.
If, or rather when, after the introduction of ID cards, your National Identity Registration Number gets ‘into the wild’ and starts to pop up in database held by private companies, which will constitutes the biggest and more imminent threat to your personal privacy?
The ‘database state’ or the ‘database economy’?
Before you make your mind up, let me add just one more piece of information.
You may well look at everything above and still be thinking that, even with all the information the private companies might have relating to me, they still don’t have access to some of the information that the state has, the kind of information that I consider to be really confidential, like my medical records, tax record, any welfare benefit records.
You’re forgetting something.
You bank already knows who pays your wages or if you have any welfare benefits paid into your account and exactly how much you’re paid and when. Although the identity of your employer might be masked if it outsources its payroll to another company, it still doesn’t take a genius to work backwards from information of this kind and figure out exactly how much tax and NI you’re paying or which benefits you’re claiming.
If you regularly buy certain types of products, say ones specially made for people with diabetes or certain allergies and food intolerances, and you have supermarket loyalty and use it, then you can bet that you’re already flagged on their database as being likely to be diabetic or lactose intolerant or maybe even incontinent. Even without voluntarily handing information over to them, supermarkets can tell a lot about you and your family just from analysing what you put in your shopping trolley; whether you have children and, if so, rougly how old they are and what gender they are, and much more besides.
Not even information about your health is necessarily safe. If you’re in the habit of buying ‘alternative’ remedies and over the counter medicines from, say Boots the Chemist, then given enough time and regular purchases, a skilled data analyst will be able to pinpoint, with a fair amount of accuracy, just what health problems you may be experiencing.
How much you spend in a supermarket and what you spend you money on can easily be used to build up a detailed profile of you, telling the company everything from what your monthly income might be to your likely social class and family background to where you’re likely to live and what kind of property you’re likely to live in – if you haven’t already given the game away by giving them your address.
Now you’re really ready to answer the question – who is the bigger threat to your privacy…
…and why is it, do you think, that whenever the spectre of the ‘database state’ is raised, no one ever seems to get around to mentioning the ‘database economy’?
'Unity' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He also blogs at Ministry of Truth.
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@JamieSport yes, not entirely sure if I want a clubcard anymore either… http://is.gd/hnZv
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